Interview: Chris Kelly (OTHER PEOPLE)

Chris Kelly HeadshotOTHER PEOPLE tells the story of a comedy writer (Jesse Plemons) struggling with personal and professional setbacks as he returns to his hometown to live with his dying mother (Molly Shannon). The film opened this year’s Sundance Film Festival, was the closing night film at Outfest and won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the Nantucket Film Festival.

(Watch the OTHER PEOPLE trailer here)

OTHER PEOPLE was written and directed by first-time filmmaker Chris Kelly, who works as a writer on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and BROAD CITY. Previously, he won a Peabody Award for his work with THE ONION NEWS NETWORK.

We spoke with Chris about how he got into the industry, his writing process and the making of OTHER PEOPLE.

How did you break into the film and television industry?

I always wanted to be a writer and in comedy. I grew up in a small suburb in Sacramento. I didn’t have any friends or family who were connected to Hollywood or the industry. I stumbled around trying different things until something felt the closest to right for me.

I went to UC Irvine as a drama major and took a bunch of creative writing courses. I was in the improv group and when I graduated college, I went to New York and got involved at UCB. I basically fell into sketch writing. When I got involved at UCB, I had a light bulb moment where I went, “I like this and feel like I’m good at it. This feels like what I should be doing.”

Simultaneously to being on a sketch team and writing and performing every week at UCB, I interned at THE ONION. THE ONION was expanding beyond fake headlines and articles by adding a video component. They weren’t hiring writers, but I thought, “What if I just get in as an intern, do production for a while, then sneakily start writing once I’m there?” That’s kind of what I did. I started submitting jokes and headlines. You would get paid $10 if one of your headlines made it in the scroll at the bottom of a web video. I got more and more on and I got to join the writers group at night. Eventually, I became a staff writer and a director at THE ONION.

How did you get the writing staff job at SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE?

In 2011, I left THE ONION. I had applied to SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE once or twice before and hadn’t gotten hired. I wanted to work there, but I also knew no one gets to work there and I should not hang my hat on this one and only dream.

I moved to Los Angeles, deciding this is where I’m going to live now. I bought a car and got an apartment. I worked for FUNNY OR DIE, which I loved. I submitted to SNL one more time, but I knew I wasn’t going to get it. My head was already in L.A. and I made peace with it. That’s when it happened. I got hired the fall of 2011 and I’ve been there for five seasons.

Your first feature film, OTHER PEOPLE, is quite different than what people might expect from a SNL writer.

Yeah, some people go in expecting a full comedy because they hear that I’m a writer for SNL, I write for BROAD CITY, and most of the cast is strictly known for their comedic work.

I’ve also gotten the opposite reaction from people who have only heard the logline, which is about a kid struggling with his sexuality and moving home to help his mother die. I think everybody is surprised in some way, which hopefully is good. I’m not trying to trick anybody.

Let’s talk about the writing of  OTHER PEOPLE. When did you start writing the script? Did you write on spec?

I had absolutely zero intentions that anything was going to happen with OTHER PEOPLE whatsoever. I wrote it the summer after my first year at SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. In your first year at SNL, you’re flying by the seat of your pants. It was, “Please, nobody notice me too much. I don’t want to get fired. I hope I’m not doing a bad job.” As great as it was, you’re so stressed all the time.

My first summer off, I decided to not take a break, but I did want to try something different.

I did sketch through FUNNY OR DIE, THE ONION and SNL. I wanted to get into a story with a full narrative arc. I also wanted to write something similar to the types of movies I personally like to watch—that sort of hybrid between comedy and drama. I had all these great ideas, but every time I went to write or brainstorm something, I kept coming back to this real period of my life where my mother was sick and I went home and lived with her and my family.

I worried it would be too weird to write about my personal life. I had hesitations that this would not be the first cancer movie, by a long shot. But I finally accepted that this was clearly what I wanted to write about and I should just do it.

I had never written a feature before. I started by free-writing. I would write down anything and everything I remembered about that time living with my mom. I was not trying to recreate that experience verbatim, but I wanted to start from a place of truth. I knew I could embellish or change or alter the story. I brainstormed small things and big things and funny things and dumb things. I could see things that kept coming up over and over again. I noticed patterns and things that were important to me and started shaping it from there.

In OTHER PEOPLE, you wrote a lot about end of life care and the importance of having that conversation with your parents. It is such a hard conversation that most people try to avoid it. You were able to depict it on screen in a very graceful way and with a touch of humor. Can you tell me about writing those scenes?

If I handled it with grace, a lot of that is because of my mother. I wasn’t trying to make a documentary about my life, but I did pull from a lot of the real conversations I had with my mother, because they were incredibly powerful and meaningful to me.

It was such a hard couple of months, being with her while she was sick. It was so sad to know she was going to die. It was brutal, but in some ways it was also weirdly lovely. We had all these seemingly small, but intense conversations. What do you want to tell me? What do I want to tell you? It was a bizarre experience and you don’t get that many times in your life. I was lucky that I got to have those conversations with her.

When I was writing the script, I was trying to capture those moments. A lot of times when I write, I talk out loud. I’ll improvise in character or try to feel how the word sounds when they’re said out loud. I would try recreating or improvising this conversation that I had remembered with my mother. I would talk as her and as me. It was a very surreal and emotional experience.

I think I was able to capture that experience well because I lived through it. There’s an extra level of authenticity that comes with having really gone through it. Before I had gone through it, I could guess what it would feel like and probably would have gotten 60% of it right. It’s that extra percentage that you can’t really get right until you’ve been through it.

In the film, there is this scene where the family (Molly Shannon as Joanne, Bradley Whitford as Norman and Jesse Plemons as David) sit at a table in a café going through a checklist of everything from her burial arrangements to being an organ donor.  Molly Shannon is brilliant in that scene.

I think that might be my favorite moment in the movie because of her and Brad and Jesse. It was really interesting to watch the scene with an audience because it’s definitely funny at points, but then the next second it’s so horrible. It was a tightrope walk with a very gifted team.

Are there scenes that you felt translated well from the page to the screen?

That scene was one of them for sure. It was actually the first scene I wrote. While many things in the movie are fully invented, that scene is very close to how it happened to me. It was an awful experience going to a coffee shop with my parents and going over the end of life paperwork. It was fucking horrible and sad. I remember my mom was in a bad mood that day. At the same time, she was ready for a playful fight and was being funny.

I can’t imagine what must’ve been going through her head. That day was awful, but weirdly had funny moments and heartbreaking moments. It was a perfect example of what my whole year was like with my family.

The actors did such a good job of capturing all of those emotions that take place in that 4 or 5 minute scene. Molly kind of went above and beyond anything I could’ve imagined for the movie. I’ve always known she was a great actress. I’ve been a fan of her since she was on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. I loved her more dramatic work in YEAR OF THE DOG and ENLIGHTENED. I wanted her so badly for this movie and I knew she would be great. I had no doubts whatsoever. My reaction to her filming that scene was essentially “Holy shit, this is so wonderful. She’s so funny, she’s so real. She’s everything I want.”

OTHER PEOPLE also captures this interesting dynamic that exists in the LGBTQ community between people who came out and are now in their 30’s or 40’s, like the film’s protagonist, and kids who are out and proud by the time they’re teenagers, like the character Justin.

Yeah, people really seem to love this Justin character. He has this great big dance scene in the movie that works as a comedy piece. I remember when I was writing the script, some people wanted to know if that scene was necessary; arguing it technically wasn’t part of the plot and had nothing to do with the cancer element of the story.  But I fought to keep it in because it DID feel necessary to me. It may not be as obviously necessary, but it is 100% necessary to the movie to me. And yes, I think the character of Justin does illustrate the generational divide.

When I was in high school, in late 90s and early 2000s, I didn’t know anybody who was gay. It wasn’t talked about in high school. It never occurred to me to even float the idea that I was gay to anybody. I don’t know if it was because of the time that it was or if it was because I came from a very conservative family where being gay was not okay.

Now at my old high school, there are kids who are openly gay and it’s barely 15 years later. That’s not to say the whole world has completely changed and that it’s easy to be a young, gay kid. That is not the case at all, but there has been a sizable shift since I was in high school.

I felt that Justin’s dance scene provides insight into David as a person. It shows you how guarded he is about his world.

100%. That is pulled directly from my life. Years ago, I went over to my friend’s parents’ house for a Christmas party, and while I was there, one of their young kids said he wanted to put on a show. He had made programs and everything. This child was so great and so confident and so flamboyant, but I gotta say, his show was pretty sexual for a child. I remember being so uncomfortable by it and laughing. But my friend turned to me kind of sharply—and I put this in the movie—and he said, “You’re laughing, but you’re also jealous because this kid is a thousand times more confident than you’ll ever be in your entire life.”

I was like, “Damn, that cut deep.” I was laughing because yes, the kid’s dance was perhaps too provocative, but I was also laughing because I was uncomfortable and had more hang-ups with my sexuality than this kid did.

When you’re writing a scene, how descriptive do you get in your script? Given your background, do you leave room for the actors to improvise?

95% of the movie was scripted. There were definitely moments of improv, especially given we had a cast of great comedians who come from improv. If something feels fake coming out of an actor’s mouth, or if they want to change it to make it feel more natural, I will support my actors.

There is a scene with David and his ex-boyfriend in bed together. Some of those moments are improvised. It was important to have the guys talk to each other like people who’ve known each other six years.

Then the scene where David comes home and finds his mom, Molly Shannon, has done medical marijuana for the first time and she’s lost her damn mind. Molly said, “I’m just going to improvise. Roll the camera.” We caught all this hilarious improvisation from her. We stood behind the camera and watched a one woman show by Molly Shannon.

Were there scenes that you had to rewrite based on shooting schedule or budget? If so, how did you work those rewrites into the film while still being able to keep the heart of the story?

I was very scared of rewrites on this movie and I truly spend my entire life rewriting at SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. At SNL, you can never be too precious about a single word. You’re doing rewrites right up until it airs. You’re writing words that the actors have never seen five seconds before they say them on live TV. I’ve been there for five years and rewriting is the name of the game. I’m a fan of rewriting, am used to it and I know that’s how it goes.

On my movie, I was so worried about it because I had written the script three or four years before we actually made it.  It had sat as this piece for so long and the longer it exists, the more it feels like it’ set in stone. When we got into production and I had to make little tweaks, I’d be so nervous. It freaked me out, but it did have to happen.

The biggest thing I can think of is the character of Justin.  When JJ Totah came in to audition for the role, he sort of stopped me in my tracks.  He was only 13 years old, but was already so confident and funny and smart and quick. He immediately apologized for being late to the audition because his house was going through a massive redec, and within minutes he was talking to me about how beautiful carrera marble is. He was unlike anyone I had ever met, and we immediately knew we needed to cast him, and allow his voice to dictate the character of Justin.

Where do you write?

SNL is its own different beast. That writing is all done frantically on one writing night, each week, in our offices.

For my feature, I basically work in my home where it’s quiet. I wrote a very detailed outline over a very long period time. I wanted to know all the beats of the story. I wanted to know that there wasn’t some big gaping hole that I didn’t realize once I started writing the actual script. I spent most of my time on the outline—brainstorming until I felt confident I hadn’t forgotten anything. The actual writing of the script was fast and easy because the outline was so detailed.

Is there a line of dialogue from OTHER PEOPLE that really stands out to you as capturing the essence of the film?

The main character’s father is sort of not accepting of his sexuality and doesn’t really address it. He doesn’t feel comfortable talking to his son about boyfriends or anything like that.

David is complaining to his sisters about his dad and goes, “God, our dad still can’t fucking ask about my boyfriend.” One of his sisters shoots right back with, “You never ask about me or Rebecca.”

That line was important to me. His sisters acknowledging their brother’s valid complaint, but also drawing his attention to the fact that he never asks about them either. I don’t know if that really makes sense out of the context of seeing the movie, but I like that moment because David, Jesse’s character, is the protagonist of the story and you’re seeing the movie through his eyes. I thought that was a nice little moment to step outside of him and see the movie from somebody else’s point of view. David seeing that there’s these other people who have their own problems, their own issues and their own struggles—but we’re not seeing them because we’re following somebody else on his journey. I was trying to capture that idea, which is one of the reasons I like the title OTHER PEOPLE.

You can follow Chris Kelly on Twitter at @imchriskelly


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